The IRS Scandal: Shaking Constitutional Freedoms

By Rainforest Action Network

BushObamaAt first glance, it may seem like another annoying addition to the scandal du jour list: yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged that the Justice Department and FBI began a criminal investigation on whether Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees broke the law when they targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status–using search terms such as “tea party” and “patriot.”

However, what may initially appear as a political party tit for tat goes much deeper–in that the IRS has long been a vehicle of political retribution (with politics depending on what administration is currently seated in power)–and perhaps most disconcerting of all: tossing the constitutionally guaranteed equal protection clause right out the window.

The recurrent theme of governmental power targeting marginalized political communities has been a consistent, abysmal tradition dating back to the FDR administration. The administration admitted using inflated charges of tax evasion on political targets such as former Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long. And the tactic of wielding the IRS’ fiery wrath is an equal opportunity strategy for both sides of the aisle: under the Nixon administration, the IRS created the Special Services Staff (SSS) to look into thousands of perceived political enemies–including reporters who wrote critical stories of Nixon, such as Newsday’s Robert Greene, and civil rights organizations like the NAACP.

In fact, RAN has its own history with the IRS. In 2004, under the Bush administration, RAN was actually subpoenaed by the House Ways and Means Committee for all information relating to our demonstrations since 1993. Undoubtedly, this was part of a burgeoning effort by the Bush administration to stifle dissent and control free speech of activist groups. Six months before the subpoena, RAN had successfully won two major corporate campaigns: leading the first major logger, Boise Cascade, out of old-growth forests and transforming the lending practices of the world’s largest bank at the time, Citibank. Was it a coincidence that RAN was served a subpoena fresh off the heels of winning two of its biggest corporate victories?

So, the latest news of the IRS under the Obama Administration supposedly overreaching its tentacles into right-wing groups is certainly no foreign concept. In fact, what is happening currently with the Tea Party is probably one of the least egregious examples in this sordid, intertwined history. It’s also worth mentioning that these same right-wing groups were silent when RAN, Greenpeace and other allied organizations were subpoenaed under the Bush Administration. Still, this should be a wake-up call for those watching on the sidelines. This is symptomatic of our checks and balances system utterly failing.

The strategy of utilizing the IRS to do a political party’s bidding reveals something undeniably malignant: the government has a lot of leeway to unleash its fury on its desired targets. It is a wrath that is felt disproportionately according to what administration is in power and what interests are not currently serving the status quo. The truth is, this “scandal” should really be a full-fledged exposé on how the government may be inflicting both disparate intent and impact on people and groups that are not serving the current administration’s interests.

This is all indicative of a much larger problem we have in American government: the synergy and integration of government and corporate/special interests. If you’re sitting on the wrong side of the fence, the administration is essentially condoning the fact that it is okay to violate your equal protection rights. So, it is more than a political party spin job–it is about our government having unbridled power with launching intimidation tactics–that come at a heavy monetary and time cost. RAN and other organizations that have been subpoenaed have spent thousands in legal fees and have had operations stalled for months.

No presidential administration should be able to rattle this constitutionally protected dissent and free speech. As former Executive Director of RAN, Mike Brune, wrote in 2004 in response to Bill Thomas, former chairman on Ways and Means: “We firmly believe that citizen activism is a patriotic American tradition and a basis for a healthy democracy, and that it is not only a right, but also a responsibility.” And this all begs the question: what other entities does the US government have synergy with so it can continue inflicting additional oppression on marginalized political targets?